Karkwa might have made the best Canadian album of 2010, but nine-tenths of the country likely never would have heard a note were it not for some fortunate intervention by the Polaris Music Prize.
Les Chemins de verre, the Montreal quintet’s fourth album, is a stunning piece of work by any nation’s standards. Wintry, graceful and musically accomplished on a level few bands attempt, let alone reach, it actually stands a very good chance of taking Polaris on Sept. 20 over more widely acclaimed records by the likes of Owen Pallett, the Sadies, the Besnard Lakes and Tegan and Sara now that the grand jury has had a few weeks to spend with it. Because to spend some time with Les Chemins de verre is to fall under its spell. It’s just one of those records.
For the lads in Karkwa, who’ve grown a sizeable following for themselves in Quebec over 12 years of playing together, it’s been a thrill watching English Canada come around to a francophone album offering such a uniquely Quebecois blend of Radiohead-esque prog-rock and traditional folk music in the wake of the Polaris nomination.
“That’s an honour for us, to be placed with Owen Pallett and the Sadies and Caribou and Besnard Lakes,” says keyboardist Francois Lafontaine, downing a bottle of red wine with frontman/guitarist Louis-Jean Cormier and drummer Stephane Bergeron on Yonge St. “Those are all projects that we listen to and love. So we’re proud. It doesn’t matter if we win or not.”
In a sense, Karkwa has already won. Critical enthusiasm for Les Chemins de verre is spreading and the band, like former Polaris nominees Malajube, seems destined to gain a foothold with discerning indie-rock fans outside the invisible wall that tends to isolate French-language music within the French-speaking parts of the country.
The group was in town last week to record a live session for iTunes at Metalworks studio that should be up online by the time the Polaris gala rolls around. This Sunday, too, Karkwa joins fellow francophone Polaris nominees Radio Radio and the Sadies to play a joint Polaris/Toronto International Film Festival street party to fete the opening of the Bell Lightbox complex on King St.
It makes sense to strike while the iron is hot, although Cormier cautions that “there’s a lot of work to do.” Even Malajube, who garnered enough unlikely notoriety south of the border to mount a U.S. tour in support of its last album, Labyrinthes, didn’t have as much luck bridging the Two Solitudes as some might think, he points out.
“It’s hard, touring,” says Cormier. “Malajube worked very hard and they came back very tired and the tour was not very successful. It wasn’t payant.”
That Les Chemins de verre is a major artistic success, at least, is indisputable. And the band itself concurs that this latest record is the most fully realized yet of its attempts to blend, as Cormier puts it, “progressive rock without limits and chansons francophones.”
Karkwa is, in fact, a little embarrassed by its earliest work, particularly its first album, Le Pensionnat des etablis, which was recorded when the band members were fresh from jazz studies at CEGEP and perhaps a bit too stuffed with ideas borrowed from everyone from Frank Zappa to James Brown to Steve Reich for its own good. Cormier calls it “maladroit,” while Bergeron laments: “Our first album started with, like, a British rock song and then a funk/reggae/Latin song.” Eyes are rolled all around.
For Les Chemins de Verre — recorded during a break from touring Europe this past spring in the same French manoir where Feist’s The Reminder and Patrick Watson’s Wooden Arms were recorded, not to mention some classic work by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin — a change in working methods from the band’s usual, live-off-the-floor approach appears to have been the key to greatness.
Amazingly, for an album that sounds so cohesive and obsessively plotted out, Chemins was actually the result of the band going into the studio with absolutely no clue what it was going to do.
“It sounds like it was live, like the other albums,” says Lafontaine. “But this time it was just one or two of us playing and we’d layer and layer and layer.”
“The other albums were recorded with a lot of pre-production and we spent a lot of time working on the songs and rehearsing them,” says Cormier. “With this one, we just tried to not prepare anything, to just go in the studio and see what happens. We had songs but we’d never rehearsed them or played them to the other guys. It was just like: ‘Okay, today we’ll go with this one.’
“It was like a puzzle, really.”
Article Published by Ben Rayner, Pop Music Critic, On Thu Sep 09 2010 in Toronto Star